Pity the lot of the double bass player. Condemned to endless repetitions of tonics and dominants, he--occasionally a she -- rarely gets to shine except for some featured passages in the scherzo of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or the finale of his Ninth.
But for Bertram Turetzky, 53, who almost single-bowedly has made the instrument a solo vehicle of contemporary music, the double bass is "probably the most versatile of the bowed instruments."
Turetzky plans to demonstrate that versatility in a recital of music spanning the 14th Century to the present at 7 p.m. Sunday at UC Irvine.
"I wanted to change the social and artistic status of the instrument," he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Del Mar near UC San Diego, where he has been a professor of music since 1968. "And I wanted to play as a soloist in chamber music."
He has succeeded in both, but it has taken time.
For one thing, there wasn't much traditional literature written expressly for the instrument, "except for some 19th-Century virtuoso stuff that isn't up to the level of the other strings," he said.
And he was opposed to creating a synthetic repertory by making transcriptions of music written for other instruments.
"For me, any instrument that lives its life on the concert stage playing other people's music is a second-class citizen," he said. "Besides, so many works, especially those for strings, are based on the resonance of the instrument--the open strings ringing and making a wonderful resonance.
"Bach's First Suite for Cello is exquisitely conceived for the cello. It feels good, it's challenging and gratifying. But when you try to play it in another key on the bass--which you have to do because it lies too high in the original key--it doesn't have the same resonance.
"It took me a long time to understand this problem, but I did. So I'm interested in music specifically written for the instrument."
Turetzky and his wife, Nancy, who plays the flute and who will be joining him on Sunday's program, began sending out letters to young composers: "I would love to play your piece," they wrote, "if you would only write it."
Apparently the ploy worked, for by his count more than 300 new works have been written for him since 1955. Many of these works incorporate "experimental" performance techniques, such as a wide variety in bowing and pizzicato attacks and even percussive effects.
Turetzky wasn't always interested in classical music, however. His first love as a teen-ager in his native Norwich, Conn., was jazz.
"I got fascinated to the point of not being very interested in anything else--especially in the music of (Duke) Ellington, (Louis) Armstrong and Fats Waller," he said.
He started sitting in on local jazz bands, "picking up the bass, taking a few lessons, listening to people."
"It was the conservatory without doors that I went to as a kid," he said. "If I am a success today, it has to do with the attitudes I met--mostly from black swing stars--and not even all were stars.
"They were all wonderful to me. They were supportive and positive--always. There was never a put-down."
But Turetzky also discovered less savory aspects of the scene:
"I soon saw that the jazz life wasn't going to work for me. There were problems with drugs and alcohol, mostly among the older musicians, and I didn't like that life. So I realized that I had better look for something else."
That something turned out to be early, pre-Bach music: "The music was dramatic because of the polyphony, and it was team-oriented. I liked it because jazz was like that.
"The music began to make sense to me. And then everything fell into place."
He pursued studies at Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Conn., and later began playing in the Hartford Symphony and the Connecticut Opera.
During this period, he also became interested in contemporary classical music, which has drawn controversy and--even worse--indifference from most concert audiences. "I wanted to play it, that was one reason," Turetzky said.
But there was another:
"One of my classmates, who was a composer, took his own life. That was very painful. When I understood what had transpired, it became abundantly clear (that) he didn't want to live in a world where his big love, which was composing music, wasn't balanced with players who wanted to play it.
"Most people don't understand that if you don't have contemporary music today, you won't have 'museum music' tomorrow.
"If we are so hung up with music of the 19th Century--and the music consumer basically is--what's going to happen in the future? We have 14 years left in this century. In the 21st Century, what are we going to do, be two centuries behind?"
Turetzky has introduced and recorded many new works, and he passionately believes that resistance to contemporary music is basically a problem of education and exposure.